Behind the Formaldehyde Curtain Essay Review

Behind the formaldehyde curtain is an essay written by Jessica Mitford. The essay focuses closely on the process of embalming after the author gives a dramatic and symbolic introduction laden with an irony and almost satirical twists. In a rather smooth and casual prose, Mitford goes on to explain the processes of embalming.

This paper will go on to analyze the essay by Jessica Mitford. The paper will take and concentrate on the author’s viewpoint concerning the process of embalming. Mayer defines this process of embalming as the preparation of the body of a deceased person for viewing. It is this purpose of embalming that Mitford is against off. Mitford argues that it does not make much sense if the sole purpose of embalming would be to make the body be presentable for viewing inside the casket before burial. According to Mitford, the embalming process is merely a money making venture by the morgues scattered all over the world. Through the illumination and analysis of the essay by Mitford, this paper will try to analyze whether the process of embalming is of any significant importance or it is just a business venture like any other. The thesis and objective statement becomes “embalming: its significance and relevance in the modern world.

Mitford goes on to argue that embalming is synonymous to mutilation of the body. In her essay, she gives a vivid and almost dramatic exposure to the world few of us know about.The main places of concentration are the mortuaries present on American soil. The following analysis and discussion emanates from this author’s point of view.

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Discussion and analysis

Mitford in her essay is constant questioning the viability of the embalming process and the importance in the world today. Traditionally, when people died, the overly complicated process of embalming was not even taken into context.  The deceased were just buried without having the agony of their bodies passing through the ‘Mutilating’ process of embalming.

Consent from the relatives

Today, according to Mitford, when a person dies and is taken to the morgue, the attendants take it upon themselves to ‘prepare’ the body for the final viewing before the body is buried. The author argues that this should not be the case. The next of kin or relative of the deceased should be allowed to give their view on the whole process. Mostly, the embalmers do not divulge the intricate details that occur during the process of embalming. The author is confident that, if the relatives were informed of those processes, they would surely not allow their beloved ones to undergo through such torture. Not unless in absolutely necessary circumstances and with the special request of the deceased’s family, this process, according to Mitford should be banned or put on restrictions.

Embalming process: Beautifying the body for final viewing?

Mitford states that the embalming process supposed to ‘beautify’ the body for the sole purpose of viewing. The embalmers make the body look respectable before it is buried. The essence of embalming is to make the deceased appear presentable at least one final time before their bodies are laid to rest. It is supposed to have the bodies achieve a sense of normality. However, you find that sometimes many people die without blemishes or without even falling ill. Their skin is still in presentable condition making the author question the practicality of applying this process on such people. Embalming alters the look of the deceased making them look different from what other people have been used to.

“Mutilating” the body

Mitford vividly describes the happenings behind the closed doors of the morgue. When a person dies, the morgue attendants take over and perform operations on the body that the author can only describe as “torture.” With indignation, and a sense of sarcasm, the author goes on to give a precise description of what happens after death, using a character, Mr. Jones as the specimen. Death is a natural process that all of us have to go through. But after death, according to Mitford, the body shouldn’t be subjected to further disrespect through the process of embalming. The author proposes that once a person dies, he or she should be given the space to achieve peace of mind and create peace with his or her deity. The body should be allowed to retain the original form in which it was charred. The process of embalming is just pure torture and totally not called for.

The embalming process according to Mitford

Mitford gives a very informed and very precise description of what happens to the body once it is wheeled into the mortuary starting from the tools used to the actual process. In a sense of detached humor, Mitford compares the attendant’s embalming bed to the surgical bed in a hospital. Even the tools are almost similar albeit a little rudimentary for the morgue attendant. The process embalming as Mitford outlines it begins with the identification of any defects in the body. The body is washed and then a survey is conducted to make sure that there are no ruptures on the skin, swellings of any kind or some other form of disfigurement.  If defects are found in the body, the attendant first takes care of these defects before embarking onto the other body areas.

Depending on what the deceased had died of, different processes and products are applied to make sure the body is in a healthy repose for final viewing and farewell. Normally, they start by draining the blood out of the body’s system. This is done to prevent ‘live burial’ according to Mitford. The blood drained is replaced with the embalming fluid having been pumped into the body through the arteries. The choice of the embalming fluid that is used depends largely upon the skin tone of the deceased person. Then three to six gallons of liquid, dyed and perfumed solution of the formaldehyde, glycerin and other components including water are pumped into the deceased body Mitford. In the specimen, Mr. Jones’ mouth is sewn together with a needle that is placed between his upper lip and gum and brought out through the left nostril to give the corners of the mouth a slight raise for a more ‘pleasant expression’.  After this is done, the attendant takes a long poke, places it inside the chest cavity of Mr. Jones, pokes around, pumps out the contents and replaces with cavity fluid.

The abdomen is the sewed together to prevent the cavity fluids from leaking. Cream is applied heavily to prevent Mr. Jones’ skin from getting burnt or breached by the tremendous amount of chemicals circulating inside his body.

Mr. Jones is left for a while waiting the final activities in this process of embalming where he is made to be ready for casketing. If he has any broken limbs, they are sewn together in a very rudimental manner. Then he is washed again and dressed well. The author argues that probably Mr. Jones has received a far greater preparation than he could have ever afforded were he alive. The grotesqueness by which the author gives a narration of this process serves to show its indignation of the whole process.

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Morgues: are they in it for business?

Mitford tends to think that it’s all about business for these morgue attendants and morgue owners. With the rapid increase of the facilities offering funeral and embalming services, the author has been convinced that this happens because of business interests, nothing else. There is no law or statute in the country that calls for embalming of bodies when people die and yet, this is done without even a question or consent from the relatives of the deceased. And they are expected to pay, forced even, for a service they never applied for. The notions and concept of the processes involved in embalming are never let out to the general public. The crude methods that happen behind the formaldehyde curtain are never to be let know lest people get upset. When people see their loved ones neatly dressed, well composed and with a calm repose inside the casket, they embed that image in their minds as the last thing their beloved ones looked like. People wouldn’t want to see their loved ones disfigured or all cut up as the last image before they bury them. It is this weakness that the attendants at the morgue take advantage of. Mitford (1978) notes with indignation that most of these attendants haven’t even undergone through much education, most times having a year or so crash program to prepare the dead for final farewell. That is why most of them pay little or no respect to the bodies they work upon. To them it is merely a business venture. They charge exorbitant amount for the  embalming process, a thing  that does not go down well with the author as she views it as a form  of extortion. The attendants and morgue owners are in it for as long as the money keeps coming. To top it up, after they prepare the body and do all other rituals pertaining to the morgue, they offer to give transport services and even bury the dead for an extra fee.

Is embalming of any importance?

Falcony states that the process of embalming is very intricate. The major objective of embalming is achieved only during the final viewing. Any since the final viewing is done only once then this begs to ask the question on the importance of the process. Why go to all that extent of preparing a body for just a few minutes viewing? Apart from the respectability appearance that the body achieves after undergoing the process, what more added value results from that?  The answer, according to Mitford is nil.


Based on the discussion and analysis of this essay by Mitford, I do whole agree with the author that embalming and all the processes related to it should be done away with. Laws should be applied to make sure businessmen do not take advantage out of a sad encounter such as death to gain unscrupously. I support the author in her endeavor to sensitize the people on the crudeness of the embalming process and in calling for a simple method of burying our deceased.

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